©2005 Matthew Dodder. All rights reserved.

Costa Rica 07-14-05 to 07-29-05
(Section 2: Rancho Naturalista, transfer to Savegre Lodge)

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Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)

Day 04:
Rancho Naturalista with Leo Garrigues
01:00 transfer to Savegre Lodge
(3 hour drive to
this Highland Forest, 7,500')

We emerged from our cabins at 5:30, well-rested but sticky and smelling like repellent. A shower seems to last all of 10 minutes because the heat and humidity quickly makes one feel like "what's the point of bathing?". Leo awaited us on the balcony again. A walk before and after breakfast took us higher into forest in search of Manakins, of which both White-ruffed and White-collared were seen as well as White-crowned. We saw Ruddy Quail-dove as it waddled up the trail, but only briefly, before it flushed. Black-throated Wren appeared in the upper branches of a short, vine-tangled tree. Perhaps the darkest Wren I've ever seen, it seemed positively stygian in its coloration and would later become my favorite Wren of the trip. It responded well to a recording of its song and in fact, probably wouldn't have been seen with out the help of the iPod. Cool! As well, the secretive Dull-mantled Antbird popped out to defend his territory from the electronic intruder. He reminded us all of a Black Rail, back home. Similar patterning, including the little white spots on his wing coverts and bright red eye.

Above: White-crowned Manakin (digiscoped image)

After lunch, we said good bye to Kathy, Andrew and Leo. We would see Leo again in a few days, as he would be our guide in Carara. Now though, our driver Eric, the antithesis of Leo who has a stone-like taciturn nature that borders on a disdain for tourists... appeared with his friend. They would take us to Savegre Lodge. The two of them chattered almost constantly in the front seats while we all sat in the back. We made one brief stop at another market, this one enormous. It was one huge room, with thousands of items arranged neatly on the shelves. More juice and more water. Being a diabetic, I'm a little overcautious with snacks and juice. I always travel with a supply and juice is especially important for those low blood sugar moments. All stocked up and back on the road. It wouldn't be long now before we'd be in our second major habitat. The difference in avifauna promised to be dramatic.

Above: A huge one room grocery store

Eric turned off of the Pan-American Highway onto a bumpy dirt road (again) and we descended into a deep canyon community. Savegre Lodge is well known for its population of Resplendent Quetzals and the thought of finally seeing one made my heart beat faster. I looked right and left out of the van windows and Eric was newly perky because, he said, he wanted to show us some birds on the way down. He pointed out Sooty Robin along the fence line. We would see this bird only twice during our trip and for each view, we have him to thank. He also stopped at vista point where he directed our attention to a pair of Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers atop a tree. Before we reached the canyon floor, Eric had helped us locate Flame-colored Tanager and Large-footed Finch as well. Not bad for a non-birder!

Above: the road into the Savegre River Canyon took us through stunning scenery

After what seemed a long time, the road led through an obviously growing community of lodges, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants. Despite the remote feeling road leading down, this area was clearly developed, or at least on its way. We pulled into the parking spot in front of reception and it was obvious, even from the van, that the Hummingbird feeders were being visited by birds we had not yet logged. Something white zipped in and out of the front garden. Something else unfamiliar called from the trees above and out among the bushes. It was new, all over again... The sky was overcast and a low cloud level cooled things a lot. I considered putting on long pants and maybe even long underwear.

Above: Reception building at Savegre Lodge

While the possibility of so many new birds was exciting, I wasn't immediately taken with the lodge. It seemed too big and too polished. Another van load of tourists rolled up behind us, suitcases and sandaled tourists were in evidence everywhere. What's this? Somebody without binoculars?? A woman carrying a purse. I was prepared not to like this place, no matter how nice it was...

We checked into our room, which calmed me down slightly. It was a tiny room on the far end of the garden. On the way to the door we spotted Rufous-crowned Sparrow, our old friend from Bougainvillea... And a Green Violet-ear. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. Where's the Quetzal? How do we find the Quetzal?? Almost on cue, an American woman who had been admiring the feeders turned to speak to us. "Today I saw 11 Quetzals," she said, kind of out of nowhere... "Yeah, they were right over there. I'll show you." "Ok", we said. Something about her made me confident she wasn't a real birder. No binoculars. No field guide. Anyway, we followed her to a small avocado tree in the parking lot beside the garden. A parking lot?? "It was right up there this morning. Early. Like 8:00. And a green toucan was there too." We understood she must have been talking about Emerald Toucanet... "Ok, you can go now", I thought to myself, wishing she could hear my telepathic signal.

A parking lot...

Above: The avocado tree where we saw the Resplendent Quetzal pair and Emerald Toucanet

Above: Me standing in front of our cabin. Kaz and Aiko had the room on the right.

Above: the gardens outside our cabin door at Savegre Lodge

By dinner time, we managed to locate 13 new species for the trip without the assistance of a guide. Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Acorn Woodpecker, and Yellow-winged Vireo were among them. As well, the Hummingbird feeders were visited by the micro-sized Scintillant Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, and the unmistakably patterned Gray-tailed Mountain-Gem. Dinner was in a large room with a long buffet table. Waiters ambled about the room informing the guests of available drinks and inviting everyone to help themselves to food. Around the room, photographs of Quetzals were arranged in several places. Local birds of other sorts were all on display and each one with the name of the photographer below. Just outside the windows, all three feeders in front were visible, as well as three more outside the bar. Kaz and Aiko and I ordered beer to go with our dinners. That sure tasted good. Imperial was what we drank and it is brewed Costa Rica. I began to relax, but I was still reluctant to say I like this place. The gift shop next to reception soured my impression. Coffee mugs, t-shirts, new age music cds, bottle openers, refrigerator magnets... Tomorrow would be more native, I hoped.

As was quickly becoming our daily routine, we had dinner, walked back to the room and readied ourselves for bed. First we reviewed the day's species list, made a few notes and checked off the lifers. We also studied the long list of possibilities and convinced ourselves we were prepared for what might follow. Tonight though, we pulled out a space heater and put on our long underwear, which seemed very strange for the tropics, but we were in the mountains, so I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise. Lights out.

Day 05:
Savegre Lodge and nearby primary forest with our guide Marino Chacon

We woke up early enough to search for the Quetzal where the American woman said we should look. By 5:30 am we were in position, eager and vibrating with nervous excitement. Several cars were parked in the lot and two people were already gathered, each looking toward the small avocado three. Little green fruits, about walnut sized, if not slightly smaller, adorned the outer branches. A few birds, none of the the desired emerald and crimson Quetzal, were seen while we waited. Slaty Flowerpiercer, a bizarre bluish-gray Finch with a distorted bill designed to pierce the throats of nectar-rich flowers, and a buzz-through Barred Forest Falcon were among them. I checked my camera again to see if it was on, loaded and fully extended. Nothing yet and we'd been waiting for a while. "Should I go and get my jacket?" I wondered. It's a little chilly...

Cricket was the first to see it. She saw the Resplendent Quetzal fly into the center of the tree, a shock of gleaming iridescence from another world. She later said the bird looked like it was glowing from the inside, but it had a reflectivity as well that rivals the Woodnymph in its brilliance. It turned, revealing the full glory of its carmine breast and belly. How could this bird ever hope to remain hidden? Where's the long tail? The three-foot long streaming tail?? We surmised it had been broken, or perhaps this was not a fully mature male. The female joined and I suddenly realized I had failed to shoot any pictures. Not 30 feet away from my boyhood dream and I had not thought to take any photographs... I began to shoot the female but getting her to sit still was difficult. Before we knew it, both birds had snatched fruits from the branches and sped to branches quite out of range for photographs. I checked my watch. It was precisely 6:05am, July 18 that my dream came true. I wished my whole family and everyone I knew had been there to see what I had seen. I felt slightly dizzy and the cold had ceased to bother me. We waited for the birds to return, but they had had their fill and were not seen again until after lunch. In their place, the American woman's Emerald Toucanet appeared, just as she had said. Now it was ours...

After a quick breakfast buffet, the four of us gathered outside the reception area to meet our guide, Marino. He is the co-creator of the checklist offered on the Gateway web site. We learned later that his family owned the lodge, which had grown considerably since it was founded. Earlier, it had been called Cabinas Chacon and is still often referred to as such. He arrived about 20 minutes late and apologized repeatedly for the inconvenience.
He was immediately liked by all of us. Healthy, happy and about 50 years old. He radiated with good humor and enthusiasm for his job. He made a quick round about the reception area and dining area, we guessed, to say hello to his many beloved workers. They all seemed happy to see him.

After a moment or two, he reappeared with binoculars and a focused look on his face. "I can see you are real birders. That is good." We laughed and agreed, "Yes, real birders..." He seemed pleased, but I suspect he always looks that way. He's just that kind of person. "What have you seen so far? It is helpful if I know what you still need to find..." God, I like this guide! I had the feeling right away that this was going to be a good day. "We've seen a few birds about the garden." I listed them each, impatient to share that we had already seen my goal. "And we've seen a male and female Quetzal, as well as Emerald Toucanet." "Ok, that is good. So beautiful, eh? Oh, the Quetzal... I want to take you to the primary forest. Do you have a car?" We told him that we did not and he offered to take us up in his vehicle, a small red pickup truck. There was room in the front for one and the rest would have to ride in the back. Aiko took the inside and Kaz, Cricket and I jumped into the truck bed. I was so excited at this point. We were going into the primary forest with our friendly guide and sitting in the open air, ready to see anything that happened to fly past. How long is the drive? I wondered... We headed up a long, bumpy dirt road with huge potholes and patches of standing water, glanced repeatedly by hanging branches and wet leaves... It was wonderful, speeding through the forest. And the thought of no seatbelts only crossed my mind once or twice, when my rear began to slide across the floor of the truck toward the back. I grabbed the side of the truck tightly. Cricket was wedged in between the wheel well and the rear window and Kaz made due by pushing against the side with his feet. Before I had a chance to seriously considered how painful it would be to be bounced out of the truck, we came to a stop. A neat, one vehicle space awaited us at the trail head. We all hopped out.

"I want to use some tapes to call in some birds. Is that alright with you?" I guess some birders object to tapes, but I trusted him to use his judgment and exercise appropriate restraint. My concern was slight, and hardly necessary. He clearly knew when and when not to use such methods.

Almost immediately, Marino called out several birds we were not yet familiar with. Several colorful warblers were among the group. The tame Collared Redstart, aptly named "Amigo del Hombre" because of its personable nature, Black-cheeked and Flame-throated Warblers. As well there was Black-billed Nightingale Thrush and Gray-breasted Wood Wren.

Above: the forest at Savegre

We walked up the road we had entered on, promised by Marino that we would enter the forest proper soon. As Leo had done before, Marino seemed interested in the iPod and how I had organized it. He asked me to play a song or two, specifically the Black-billed Nightingale Thrush. As the song was broadcast, the Thrush appeared on the road, in full view. Quite wonderful because indeed, all the Nightingale Thrushes are very shy. A moment later a Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush showed up, made curious we supposed, by the singing of its close relative. Quite unexpected, but fortunate since we didn't have the actual song for this second species.

Above: Marino and I wait for the Ruddy-capped Nightengale Thrush. Marino's small speaker projects the song using the sample from my iPod

Above: Cricket shows her approval of the Ruddy-capped Nightengale Thrush

Before we finished for lunch, we had logged at least another 20 species including the beautiful Collared Trogon, Ocraceous Pewee, the rare Dark Pewee which involved a grueling hike up a steep muddy slope, Mountain Robin, the greenish, hook-billed Rufous-browed Peppershrike, and the nondescript Yellow-thighed Finch whose thighs are its only memorable feature. They're yellow... Nearly the entire time was spent in the forest interior, passing through a forest that featured habitat quite different from the dense darkness of Rancho. Here, the trees consisted mainly of very tall oaks. Their trunks were quite bare and the understory was relatively open but still thick in patches, especially when we ventured into the many riparian corridors. One such zone was beautified by a fast moving stream with many moss-covered, bromeliad festooned branches and huge boulders that made passage difficult in places. A sign over the trail read "En silencio es mejor" meaning roughly "silence is best"... Great advice for birders, and it quickly became my mantra, weather or not we actually followed it. I was so eager to learn that I asked questions of our guide every few steps. Marino's little dog, "Osito" or "Little Bear" accompanied us the entire way, testament to our guide's magnetic nature, but seemed a bit reluctant in the rougher places.

Above: unspoiled forest at Savegre

Above: spoiled tourist at Savegre

Above: Marino led us upward to an exposed area to find Dark Pewee, a rare Contopus Flycatcher

Above: "En Silencio es Mejor"

Above: "I'm trying to be quiet, but there's a Trogon right there..."

Above: a small creek along the trail at Savegre

We broke for lunch back at the lodge. After he had had a chance to check on his employees, shaking hands and speaking amicably with the other guests about the room, each clearly enthralled with him, he plopped down beside us and ate his standard meal, broiled trout from the nearby pond. We chatted briefly about what would happen next and before we knew it we were off again. This time, we strolled along the river toward a short woodland trail. Along the way we saw yet another new Hummingbird, the Green-fronted Lancebill as well as Yellow-bellied Siskin, Torrent Tyrannulet and my favorite, the Black Guan. This last species is a large black ground bird, much like a Chachalaca that jumps and runs along the branches of trees like as skillfully as a squirrel. Dark, hard to find, a jungle being. It pretty much kicks ass, as far as I'm concerned!

Above: the Black Guan was in the trees just on the other side of this log bridge

Above: documenting the moment by holding the camera at arm's length

As we slowly made our way back to the lodge, Marino was repeatedly greeted by happy workers, small children and other guests. He balanced friendly salutations with frequent directions toward new birds. The Firey-throated Hummingbird would have escaped us if it hadn't been for his quick reflexes. The gleaming bird was perched quietly in a bottlebrush tree, just minding its own business and Marino found it like it had some kind of beacon on it. We waited for the iridescent throat to show its full color, and it did! Our small group returned to the lodge, where we offered Marino a beer while he helped us record the day's discoveries. He chose to have coffee instead and proceeded, with great fanfare to recall each bird we'd seen. We'd spent a mere ten hours with him and become quite fond of him. It was easy to understand why everyone smiled when he entered the room.

Above: Our guide at Savegre Lodge, Marino

Dinner was relaxed but happy, as Kaz, Aiko, Cricket and I reviewed the day's discoveries. We had seen Quetzals more than once, Black-cheeked Warbler, Slate-throated and Collared Redstarts and several species of Hummingbirds. The number and variety of species was almost dizzying, but on some level, we were also beginning to gain a familiarity with the birds. Some species had appeared more than once, a few songs were recognizable. It seemed, at least to some of us, that Costa Rican birds might not be all that confusing after all... The goal of 200 lifers seemed altogether do-able.

Day 06:
Savegre Lodge
01:00 transfer to Tarcol Lodge
(4.5 hour drive to
this Lowland Pacific Coast Rainforest, 0-100')

Kaz and Aiko spent the morning birding around the gardens and also staked out the Lancebill's favorite flowering bush. Cricket and I walked along the river and into the woods. Along the way, we met the other guide, Melvin, who recommended we head up into the hills where more birds could be found as well as fewer people. He was dragging a group of non-birders with horses close behind.

We took his advice and while we located few of the birds he mentioned, we found ourselves in unspoiled highland forest. The trees were covered moss in places and the understory was dense with viney tangle. Various signs in Spanish warned, I believe, about not gathering plants or leaving trash. It was all so thrilling, being in such pristine habitat, with only our infrequent conversation to break the silence.

We fought our way through some pretty steep, slippery areas with very few birds to show for it. But the landscape was beautiful and when we finally did return to the main trail, we found fewer people and increased bird activity. Cricket located a Silver-throated Tanager among the many Common Bush Tanagers and occasional Gray-breasted Wood Wren. As well, there was Yellowish Flycatcher, a name that amused us both. We were becoming increasingly fond of the word Ocraceous as well, it seemed to crop up in every family. Ocraceous Wren. Ocraceous Flycatcher... In light of this, we also imagined that at any moment we might come across something called a Greenish Flycatcher, or maybe Brownish. Perhaps Ambiguous Flycatcher would really be the most appropriate... It seemed like most of the Empids we saw would fit into this new super-species.

Above: On the trail that the other guide, Melvin, recommended

A quick lunch again before we met our next driver, Marco, who showed up in an enormous 16-person airport shuttle-style ride to take us to our next stop along the Pacific Coast. Tarcol was some 4.5 hours away and the relative-luxury coach was welcome. Each of us would get a window and a chance to review the terrain as we left this mountain wonderland.

Things started out just fine. We climbed the steep road out of the canyon, passing once again the grove of trees where the Silky Flycatchers had been and the fence where we'd seen the Sooty Robin. I think we all missed Marino a little, so perhaps the drive was slightly sad as well.

Fortunately, Marco was knowledgeable about birds as well. He called our attention to a White-tailed Kite, a Ruddy Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Great-tailed Grackle... but soon it began to rain. Hard. Unfortunately, the route to the Pacific coast also took us back through San Jose, which, compared the the remote areas we had been in, appeared dark, dirty and threatenly urban. We passed gloomy barricaded homes and innumerable grayish businesses that were all but indistinguishable. There were thousands of cars, many spewing out heavy diesel exhaust and an overall unhealth... Perhaps we were just in the bad part of town, but I sure was glad when it was behind us. Our darkening drive, lasting nearly 5 hours, grew seemingly more submerged, our wipers barely able to clear the windshield as huge trucks splashed water as they passed. Soon, it was undeniably night and we pulled off the main road, following a potholed mud road toward the mouth of the Tarcoles River.

We were clearly in a low-lying area. It was warmer and more humid (by several orders of magnitude than our last location) and while we couldn't see very well in the dark, the trees appeared different somehow. We pulled into the driveway and a tall, white-haired man stood outside with an umbrella. Two Costa Rican women silently lugged our bags into the house and up the stairs to our rooms. The man smiled widely and spoke so softly, I couldn't hear him over the sound of the rain. In order to get an accurate picture of this scene and exactly how weird it was, it might be helpful to imagine something like the movie Apocalypse Now or meybe A Year of Living Dangerously... The word "surreal", comes to mind. We were in an evening downpour, along the edge of a Pacific coast mangrove with a lightning storm of biblical proportions, and here before us was a strangely calm, washed-and-pressed white man, ushering us into this flat board and corrugated tin house on what seemed might be the last night of the world.

Cricket will happily tell you how much she hated this first evening, and the two others that followed, because of the humidity, the insects and dilapidated house. She'll also tell you how tiresome our proprietor John was, and how much she dreaded our daily meals with him at the large wooden table. The water was non-potable, of course, and he said rather dryly that we shouldn't worry about it because "theoretically, the helpers wash all the food with bottled water..." His use of the word "theoretically" hung in the air as I chose to put the serving fork full of salad I had grabbed back into the bowl. No part of this building, no door way or molding, was anywhere close to square. Large gaps surrounded the doors, allowed anything that could crawl or squirm to enter our room in the dark if it chose. The metal screens, that at some point in history must have discouraged mosquitoes from the outside, now rusted and brittle, were shallow comfort for her. As if to punctuate the general "we're trapped!" feeling I sensed she was experiencing, the electricity went out shortly after we arrived. After a few minutes, John found us upstairs to deliver a small candle. He handed the light to me, hot wax was dripped down its length and onto my hand. "Thanks..." I said, as he disappeared into the dark.

After admiring the lightning over the ocean from the balcony, the heavy rain still falling on the roof and echoing through the house, we readied ourselves for bed. We each took showers in the communal bathroom down the hall. Kelly found a gecko in the shower, so you can imagine how comfortable she felt after that. We were all clean from our showers, but it seemed like we might never dry or get rid of the smell of deet. I think it was about this time that our nightly ritual of checking under the sheets for "creepy-crawlies" began. "Have you checked the bed yet?" she asked each night... I peeled back the bedspread, damp from humidity, peeked in deeply, and when all was clear, we slipped under the top sheet to attempt sleep. Luckily, a ceiling fan kept some small amount of air moving, so we could breathe at least. When I switched off the lamp, the cracks in the floorboards glowed with the light on the first floor. This should be interesting, we both thought. The sound of humming insects was not as loud as we expected, perhaps because of the gecko that chirped somewhere in our room.

As much as Cricket despised this place, I still think it was one of my favorites. In fact, I was quite giddy when we first arrived, despite the conditions. The furious storm, the strange half-dead caretaker, the silent helpers, the primitive bathroom and rusting screens... I viewed it all as a once-in-a-lifetime experience that put us right in the middle of an old movie set in a forgotten mangrove. I half expected Humphrey Bogart to show up and proclaim "You know that more murders are committed at 98º Fahrenheit than any other temperature..."

"You are NOT bringing the Palo Alto group to this lodge." She announced in the dark. "Yeah, I know..." I slept fine.

Go to the NEXT SECTION of this report....

Or choose a different section:
Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)